Prior to the 2011-’12 NHL season, the Los Angeles Kings were a sexy pick to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. After all, they had gained some playoff experience as the Western Conference’s seventh seed the previous year, they were building around budding superstar Anze Kopitar and, simply put, they looked ready to take the next step. Many predicted 2011-’12 could be the Kings’ year.
Then the season started. LA struggled mightily through much of the year. The nightmarish campaign transformed them from a team considered to be a Stanley Cup favorite to a squad just battling for a playoff birth. The Kings’ fortunes began to change, however, when they reunited Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in a blockbuster trade that sent Jack Johnson to Columbus and catapulted LA to become the first ever eighth seed to hoist the Stanley Cup.
So as we march toward the 2013 playoffs and pundits sit waiting for the record setting Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins to clash for the right to earn the most coveted trophy in all of sports, keep the Kings’ story in mind. After all, it seems more and more commonplace these days that the eventual champion is not necessarily the team that has dominated all season but the team that gets hot at the right time and is dominating when the playoffs begin. As the old cliché goes, “all you have to do is get in and then you never know what can happen”. So with that spirit in mind, here are two teams that have struggled mightily at times this season but could end up having the last laugh come June.
St. Louis Blues
Like last season’s Kings, the Blues entered this campaign as a favorite to bring home the Cup. And, like the Kings last season, it has been anything but smooth sailing for St. Louis this year. Dealing with injuries to key players such as T.J. Oshie and Vladimir Tarasenko, in addition to issues with sub-par goaltending that the club hadn’t seen at all last season, the Blues were hovering right around the playoff bubble and in danger of missing the postseason all together only a few short weeks ago.
As ESPN’s Scott Burnside points out, though, the Blues are still as good a bet as anybody to be sipping champagne from Lord Stanley’s Cup this year. In fact, much like Los Angeles last season, the Blues have greatly benefited from a trade deadline shake-up to their roster. While not pulling off the blockbuster the Kings managed last year, St. Louis bolstered their blue line by acquiring Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester. Say what you want about Bouwmeester’s playoff experience (or lack thereof) but pairing him with Alex Pietrangelo creates a formidable tandem, to say the least. Follow that up with the aforementioned Leopold and Kevin Shattenkirk and you may have a top four unrivaled in the league.
Coinciding with goaltender Brian Elliot rounding back into form, the moves certainly seem to have worked out in the short-run. The Blues have shot up to sixth place in the West thanks to only a single loss since the trade deadline, a stretch that has seen them post three shut outs in six games. Talk about stingy. What’s more, the Blues have the depth to score in the playoffs (if and when they’re healthy). With the likes of Oshie, Tarasenko and guys like Chris Stewart, St. Louis will certainly be a tough draw for anyone. And if things keep going the way they are right now, the Blues may find themselves on an eerily similar path to the one the Kings took to glory last year.
Unlike the Blues, the Caps were not on a lot of people’s preseason list to inflict much damage in the 2013 playoffs. Furthermore, this pick looks a lot less like a dark horse given the squad will likely end up as the East’s third seed. That being said, this is still a team that appeared like it may miss the playoffs altogether up until the last week or two. But in that last week or two, Washington has taken advantage of the fact that they play in a weak division and have really started to separate themselves from their rivals. Sure, Winnipeg is still hanging around but does anybody think the Jets can actually overtake the Caps for the division crown at this point?
Roughly one-quarter of the way through the season, the Caps were one of the worst teams in the league. Alex Ovechkin wasn’t scoring and Nick Backstrom was struggling to find his form after a concussion scare. Add in the fact that the team was trying to learn Adam Oates’ new system having gone through an abbreviated training camp and the early part of the Capitals season turned into nothing short of a disaster.
Well, the Caps certainly have appeared to figure things out heading into the playoffs. They are on a seven game winning streak and are 8-1-1 in their last ten. Ovechkin has gone from “washed up” and a “has been” to throwing his hat back in the race for the Hart Trophy. He is in the top five in NHL scoring and his 27 goals now lead the league (Steven Stamkos is right on his heals with 26). It is no coincidence that the Caps turnaround has coincided with Ovie’s resurgence.
The question the Capitals now face is whether or not they can carry this success over to the playoffs. After all, this 8-1-1 stretch has seen Washington defeat only two teams (Montreal and the New York Islanders) that currently sit in playoff spots in the East. Still, all you can do is win the games you are scheduled to play and the Caps have certainly been doing that. For now, all we can really say is there aren’t many teams out there who would relish a first round matchup with the surging Washington Capitals.